May 14, 2013

Baseless instinct

The psychological urge to profile pervades our judgment, but that doesn’t mean we should follow it.

After the Boston bombing, a collective cry of grief for victims and their families arose from the American people. Beneath this, though, was a quieter cry for those more subtly affected by the bombing: members of racial minorities who would have to face inevitably heightened racism and profiling.

A day after the bombing, David Sirota published “Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American” on Salon, a progressive news site. An opinion piece by Zaheer Ali entitled “Please Don’t Be Muslim” was published in theGrio, a news site targeted toward African-American readers.

Aspects of the Boston bombing investigation seemed to reveal that these fears were founded. Salah Barhoum, a Moroccan-American teenager who attended the Marathon, was horrified when he saw his picture, along with another dark-skinned man, on the front page of the New York Post, identifying him as a suspect. The apartment of a man from Saudi Arabia, who was injured in the blast, was searched. CNN identified a suspect in a video to be a “dark-skinned male.”

We know now that all these suspicions proved to be false: The bombers are definitively Caucasian.

We have repeatedly seen racial profiling come up short.  Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned that isolating criminals on the basis of race alone “means you’re going to be wrong most of the time. Because that’s not the way the world works.” Columnist Juliette Kayyem’s statement in The Boston Globe that “until definitive information emerges, it’s pointless to speculate on who did or didn’t do this” seems obvious. Why, then, was the initial reaction to the Boston bombing so transparently motivated by race?

In the same article, Kayyem wrote that “the thirst for a quick and easy explanation leads everyone astray.” In our daily lives, “gut instinct” provides the quickest and easiest answers that we have, and sometimes they’re surprisingly accurate.

Studies seem to support this claim. Cheryl McCormick at Brock University exposed people to pictures of white Caucasian males’ faces long enough for the images to be seen, but not long enough for them to be consciously processed. She found that the subjects could accurately pick which men were more aggressive than others. Psychologist Jeffrey Valla carried out a study at Cornell in which he showed close-cropped, clean-shaven, expressionless pictures of Caucasian men in their 20s to participants and asked them to pick out the criminals. He found that people could do this with above-average accuracy. Similar studies, which instead asked subjects to identify gay males and females from a group of pictures, add an interesting piece of information as well: Subjects were able to identify gays and lesbians from gut instinct with accuracy ranging from 60 to 70 percent, but the more they thought about their answers, the further their accuracy dropped.

We operate on this kind of internal logic every day. Not only are we able to detect potential aggressors in a group of people, but we also remember their faces more clearly than those of their peers. Our gut’s main prerogative is to protect us, and so it operates on a “guilty until proven innocent” model. We rely on it because we consider inaccurate negative judgments about people to be a minor enough price to pay for our own safety.

Our personal internal logic and that of law enforcement clashed in Michael Touhey, a former U.S. Airways ticket agent. On September 11, 2001, he checked in the two men who would cause the destruction of the World Trade Center.

In an interview on CNN, Touhey remembers that, upon seeing those two men, he thought, “Geez, if this doesn’t look like two Arab terrorists, I’ve never seen two Arab terrorists.” It was a feeling he couldn’t place, and he remembers immediately feeling guilty having it. He feels guilty now, though, because he did not stop those men before they boarded their plane. Before 9/11, doing so was unthinkable. After 9/11, he believes that he would have done it.

Perhaps his story reflects the change in our collective attitude toward profiling as a result of 9/11. After a tragedy, we as a nation seem to revert to our internal logic of “better safe than sorry.” We begin to throw individual rights out the window in favor of safety. We seek to protect ourselves—but at what cost?

A 2006 online survey of college students found that 25 to 35 percent approved of the use of racial profiling to prevent crime and terrorism. And maybe that’s because it intuitively fits within our own internal scheme of quick, easy, and sometimes dirty judgments. In a country that seeks not only safety but also freedom and justice, the costs of racial profiling are simply too great. We cannot abide by it.

Eleanor Hyun is a first-year in the College majoring in English.